South Africa’s Ambassador to Italy, “untouchable” Shirish Soni, recalled over misrepresentation of qualifications & financial irregularities

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South Africa’s Ambassador to Italy, “untouchable” Shirish Soni, recalled over misrepresentation of qualifications & financial irregularities

South African ambassador to Italy, Shirish Soni, was recalled after being found guilty of financial irregularities and misrepresentation of academic qualifications.

He is further accused of sexual harassment and was suspended after pleading guilty to three counts. He does not appear to have achieved matric in 1975.

What is strange is that Soni was suspended from SA Revenue Service (SARS) in 2004 due to a hiring scandal, but was later re-employed until 2011 when he left SARS under a cloud of accusations.

In 2017, he was called back from Qatar for abusing staff, once again raising the question of political analysts on how to appoint such a person in a position where the country should be represented.

Durban-born Soni, who worked as a senior SA Revenue Service (Sars) official when Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan was commissioner, is facing four counts of misconduct related to sexual harassment, misrepresentation of academic qualifications, financial irregularities and “compromising the mission’s security”.

Soni’s 15-page suspension letter and charge sheet seen by the Sunday Independent stated that he “provided in his personnel file that he obtained his matric in 1974”, which was “false because the department of basic education stated that ambassador Soni doesn’t appear among the names of candidates who wrote the matric or Standard 10 in November 1974”.

He was also charged with breaching security by appointing an Italian woman as an intern against the policies of the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco), and causing the embassy to pay for his medical treatment without approval.

In addition, Soni faced a charge of sexual harassment.

According to a letter written to Soni by acting Dirco DG Clayson Monyela, the disgraced ambassador was found guilty by a disciplinary hearing which sat between October 21 and 24.

The hearing was chaired by Sindiswa Mququ who was appointed by the director-general of the department.

Soni was found guilty on charge one, three and four and exonerated on count two. On charge one, the letter said: “You are found guilty on this charge for ignoring guidance that was provided to you by head office management and continued to hire or bring an Italian national as an intern or volunteer at the South African Embassy in Rome thus compromising Mission security.”

On count two, which related to financial irregularities, Soni was also found guilty because as the accounting officer in the mission, “you knew that pre-approval was required beforehand but proceeded anyway to cause irregular expenditure by making the embassy to effect payment for your medical treatment without prior approval of the delegated authority”.

A decision on count four, which related to misrepresentation of matric qualifications, was “deferred” to allow him an opportunity to produce proof of the certificate.

“This is due to new information in which you stated in your clearance form Z204 the year 1975 as the year in which you obtained your matric qualifications.

“You are thus given an opportunity to produce your 1975 matriculation qualification records after which a decision will be made.”

For the charges in which he was found guilty, Soni was slapped with “a final written warning valid for six months” and “suspension without pay for a period of three months”.

“You must reimburse Dirco all funds owed by yourself as stated in the amended charge sheet. You are immediately recalled from the mission in Rome, Italy for corrective counselling and retraining after you have completed your three months’ suspension without pay,” said part of the disciplinary outcome signed by Monyela on December 17.

“You are instructed to provide Dirco with your matric qualification within 14 working days from the date of receipt of this letter.”

Soni was also ordered to make arrangements with the department’s financial management chief directorate regarding reimbursing the taxpayer.

The disgraced ambassador is said to have passed himself off as a “doctor and professor” even though he allegedly has no matric certificate. Soni worked alongside former Sars deputy commissioner Ivan Pillay, who was appointed by Gordhan without a matric certificate.

Public Protector advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane is investigating Gordhan after he allegedly strong-armed the SAA board to appoint Nico Bezuidenhout, who has just a matric certificate, as the chief executive at Mango Airlines.

A former Sars employee, who used to work closely with Soni at the revenue service, yesterday said: “It was well-known at Sars that Soni doesn’t have matric and that he got the job because he has friends in high places.”

Another former Sars official added: “We were told that Soni didn’t have time to go to school as he grew up working at his father’s clothing factory hence he was given managerial positions as he used to manage a staff of about 500 people at some stage at the family business.”

Soni was first fired from Sars as assistant general manager customs in 2004 after he was implicated in the leasing scandal for the revenue services office in Durban known as the Albany building. A year later he was brought back as the head of enforcement, risk and strategy, still under Gordhan’s tenure. He eventually left Sars, again under a cloud, around 2011 and later got his first diplomatic posting as ambassador to Kazakhstan in 2012.

It was while he was in Kazakhstan that a local institution of higher learning, Kazguu University, bestowed upon him an honorary doctorate. At his farewell party later on April 27, 2016, the same institution awarded him an honorary professorship, and he started presenting himself as a professor and doctor. After Kazakhstan, Soni was posted to Qatar in 2017 but he was recalled within a year for allegedly abusing staff members at the embassy. It was then that he was posted to Italy last February.

“One staff member in Qatar lost everything, her marriage, as well as access to her children after the ambassador drove her into a wreck,” a senior Dirco official said this week.

The official added: “Soni always threatened embassy officials by telling them that he is untouchable as he is friends with Minister Pravin.”

Soni also allegedly “coerced” a senior staff member in Rome “to draft a letter of invitation to the Italian embassy” inviting his South African “acquaintances” to Italy “who were invited through false information”.

Sources within Dirco this week claimed the suspension was the end of Soni’s diplomatic career as “every day more evidence of his wrongdoing emerges”.

“I don’t even think his friends from high places would save him this time around,” said another official.

Soni declined to comment when approached by the Sunday Independent.

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